Debate and discussion

I enjoyed yesterday’s communication skills class with the Master of Public Management class at the University of Potsdam. We did discussion and debate, and I used a few resources I can recommend:

communication triangle anne hodgson

After showing the students my communication triangle above (connect at the human, the community, and the (competitive, self-)marketing levels), I highlighted the skill of building and maintaining rapport. I used Bob Dignen’s lovely “Business with Bob” video, “Building Rapport”, where he explains mirroring and positive modelling. You’ll find it and the rest of his video series on the Business Spotlight site. (Link to the intro page to that series. Link to the video itself.)

how to disagree

Then I showed them Paul Graham’s great “pyramid of disagreement”, from the lowest, and least effective, ways (name-calling, ad hominem attacks) to those that promise most in every respect (refutation, and especially refuting the key argument). That article is well worth reading (Paul Graham, How to Disagree, March 2008).

Then we got down to business. I started with an activity from a great book I’m using a lot at the moment, by Jenny Guse, Communicative Activities for EAP (Klett/Cambridge University Press 2011, with CD-ROM, e.g. here). The activity is Discussion Trios, so: three to a group, they get a problem card, and have 10 minutes to come up with as many factors that contribute to this problem as they can. This gets them talking and practicing the language of coordination (and, as well, also, another one…). I took Jenny Guse’s material for this, namely a range of 10 environmental issues. Then we did Trios reloaded, where the same teams had to think of a new problem themselves (social, economic, cultural,…) and do the same thing again. They came up with issues like overpopulation, social inequality, corruption, but also having too many term papers to write in too short a time, and eating too much. Then they were ready to do the first extended task. I adapted an activity in Jenny Guse’s book, where she asks students to design a computer game for the elderly, and asks students to discuss and come to an agreement on the passions, values and experience of the elderly. This is to practice the language of agreement and disagreement. I preferred to have them work “closer to home”, and told them that they were to design a computer game for young adults like themselves to educate them to a pressing problem of our day and age. They were to determine the passions, values and interests of their target group that this game would appeal to. I put them in four groups of 5-6 each, and they started out by deciding on the problem, then outlining the values and passions, which each team presented, and they then went back into their groups to develop the game itself. These four games were then presented by a duo from each team:

  • A stress-reduction game: The player moves through various environments where she makes healthy, fun, vitalizing choices to move from 100% to 0% stress.
  • An urban life game: The player moves through urban adventures, where he has to “do the right thing” and is awarded citizenship and other bonus points and can become mayor or similar.
  • An end terrorism game, where the player has to put together a team to end terrorism (a lawyer, a general…). Each profile has a different chance of success, and this is predefined, so depending on whether the player employs the members of the team the way the designers have determined them to be successful, the mission will succeed.
  • An end organized crime game, in which players gain the necessary resources, which they then use as they try to infiltrate the criminal networks in missions, distracting and entertaining them to get inside.

After this entertaining activity, the students went on to “take a stand”. I showed them a cartoom that’s been making the rounds (“Dad, I’m considering a career in organized crime.” “Government or private sector?”) and asked them “Which sector is more corrupt?” The more outspoken in the class stood and spoke, and responded to each other with counter-arguments. They were great, and this I filmed, but unfortunately at over 13 minutes, the film is too long too share. (I have to break the film down to upload to our private channel, but this always takes time.) In a second round, everyone paired up, and one player expressed a standpoint, to which the other responded by agreeing with certain parts of the argument and disagreeing with others. This gave the less outspoken ones a chance to speak.

We didn’t get around to the big two team debate I had set up to end things, based on two groups, each reading only one side of an argument, and then engaging in debate, as the above activities took up the full three hours.

One thing that is rarely successful in these types of lessons is to get students to actually use functional language. I did hand out respective phrase bits and modeled them, but I didn’t actually give positive feedback when I heard them being used. The most effective feedback, I think, is when they are grasping for words and then get, from their peers or from me, the correct phrase (Comprehensible Output). I heard lots of that going on. But in my experience, as I say, it’s rarely the language usually defined as functional, it’s usually the words that carry more content. These students are using English as a Lingua Franca (ELF), at differeing levels of fluency, and they are collaborating towards an outcome, very successfully. I don’t think it’s wrong to point out functional language, it may ring a bell with some of them and come in handy, but I don’t believe in pushing it. I think it’s far more essential to internalize the principles of good communication, and that’s why a bit of a presentation and discussion of those, followed by loads of communicative activities to practice and get routine, is my favored approach. What I need to improve next time I do this sort of thing is to make sure there is a feedback slot at the end to revisit those principles.

Here is my presentation as a pdf. If you have done or do anything similar in classes, I’d love to hear from you!

MPM Discuss and debate

Published by


Teaching English for business communication skills, writing online for learners, translating, sailing whenever I can, from Washington, D.C.

7 thoughts on “Debate and discussion”

  1. hi Anne,

    Thanks for the Bob Dignan links – I particularly like the one on ‘mirroing’ – and now I’m off to read your report on Evan’s talks – Jx

  2. Hi Joan,
    His videos are lovely, aren’t they? He focusses on the concepts behind the phrases, rather than on just the phrases.
    One of our next workshops in Berlin is going to be by Vicki Hollett, which is thrilling. In her preview she promised she’ll deal with functional language. This is going to be interesting.
    I was thinking that to get students to use functional language properly to achieve their aims, I’d really need them to pair up with native speakers, or with those who simply don’t react as well unless they hear the functional key phrases used. My students get along fine without them, amongst themselves.

  3. Hi Anne,
    Nice to hear from you – good for you having Vicki Hollett – great lady.
    Is that run by Belta – is there a Belta?
    B.t.w, did you know Michele (DuttonCox)? Did you know she passed away – it was around Dec. 7, I miss her terribly.

    Speaking of functional key phrases etc. perhaps you could throw in some examples of ones you find essential (?) You know how Mark Powell says we teach the ‘language of meetings’ but nobody in real life uses this kind of language – d’ju know what I mean?


  4. Dear Joan,
    OMG, of course I know or knew Michele, from the MELTA events, and most vividly from the Christmas parties. She had the most amazing earrings, red and purple Christmas balls, and was so full of life. Unthinkable that the life should have gone out of her. I didn’t know her well myself, but I’m really sorry you’ve lost a friend. Hang in there.

    Here the teachers’ association is called ELTABB (Berlin-Brandenburg). Vicki Hollett is coming, but the venue hasn’t been finalized, so the happy event isn’t being advertized just yet. Weird.

    Functional language matches the context of a given type of communication, right, so for example when the students were collecting reasons they could have used the language of coordination (and, also, another). We might say like “as well” and “not to forget” and “in addition” and “And then there is always”, but those words didn’t come up much. Instead, most of them just said “Also” and added their reason. But the fact that their functional language was simple doesn’t mean that they introduced every new idea the same way. Facial expression, body language, tone of voice, hesitating and stopping in mid-sentence, deferring, nodding, … that’s eloquent in nonverbal/paralinguistic ways.

    Another task had them discussing and arguing and in fact disagreeing with each other and finding a consensus or just letting differences pass to achieve a goal in a set period of time. That’s the type of context where Mark Powell makes fun of the “Language of Meetings” syllabus, right, and where we teach hedging and fuzzy language and polite noises because most English native speakers use them. But really, the students know that to achieve their goals they have to avoid face-threatening acts to keep the work group whole and focused on a common outcome, so they use all sorts of strategies. We made one explicit, responding to a point by first agreeing with certain parts and then disagreeing with others, and they pretty much all took to that right away. I’d have to record them to log the exact words they used to switch from acknowleding the other person’s point to expressing disagreement, but my impression was that they used relatively simple verbal pivots starting with “but” (“but you can also say” “but there is another side”), all very straightforward and explicit and yet unthreatening, due to that strategy of agreeing first.

    In another lesson, if we had the time, the students could listen to/ analyze how others are hedging and using fuzzy language in an unscripted debate as a video. But how much uptake is there going to be? I’m very curious about what kind of language Vicki Hollett will suggest teaching.

  5. Sorry to intrude here but you reference Michele. I went out with her in the late seventies and eighties and had lost touch. This is most distressing. I’d welcome a chat with you as like you I found her an extraordinary human being. Mike Baker, London

  6. All,

    I would appreciate any information you might have on Michele. We worked together at Digital from 1981 through 1983. Her work as an English teacher (outside of her day job) was her true love. I last saw her on a visit to Munich in December 1992. She had a unique life spirit and love of life.

    Kind regards,

    Rick Sample
    Richmond, VA

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>